One of the things that’s wonderful about getting out of Albania and traveling to another European country is that suddenly the staring and extra attention I live with every day is lifted. It’s like a vacation back to normal life. For example, in Italy it’s okay to be a tourist and carry a big camera and a map. In Budapest it’s okay to hold hands with your boyfriend in public and be out late at night as a woman. I can get away with not speaking the language, holding a beer in my hand and wearing my normal clothing without questions and looks. In other words, it’s okay to shed the chameleon skin of cultural sensitivity and be obviously American, obviously foreign. There’s a certain comfort that comes with accepting you are tourist instead of living in the ill defined liminality of “ex-pat.”
I think this is what makes it hard as a Peace Corps Volunteer, especially in Eastern Europe, to come back from vacation – I notice all the staring and hassling and little cultural things I thought I was used to even more when I cross the border back home because there is such a contrast from the surrounding countries. Suddenly the way I react again reflects on how I am perceived in my community, and affects my ability to do my job. The staring and the trash on the ground are immediately apparent, but even things like getting harassed about a taxi are more frustrating than they usually are. No, I don’t want a taxi. I LIVE here, dammit. Though I may wear different clothing than you and speak slowly with an accent, I really don’t need a taxi, thankyouverymuch. Plus, I can’t begin to pay for a taxi, so please please please leave me alone.
After two weeks, five airplanes, several busses and two looong trains across Hungary and Serbia and Montenegro, I am back in Lezhe. I’m so happy to be home, and it was definitely natural getting back into my work routine (I have a work deadline tomorrow that I’ll get into in another post). Everyone is happy and has that post-holiday giddiness after New Years. The normal greeting these days is “Gezuar!” which means “happy!” as in Happy New Year, and I have been given several helpings of friends’ homemade baklava – a traditional New Years’ dish that is sweetly, syruply addicting. Yum. It’s still really cold inside my house, but it is great to be there nonetheless.
On the KLM flight to Budapest from Amsterdam I found a short article by Pico Iyer, a travel author, about how the notion of home is altered by travel. It’s a resource I really wish I’d had when I was teaching kids at Explo about architecture and tried to discuss the differences between the idea of “house” and “home.” In the article Iyer talks about the importance of travel because it challenges and changes our sense of home. What is important is how the experiences we have abroad shape our perception of the familiar, how we “go somewhere strange and see how much it resembles the strangeness we know.” He goes on to talk about how in the 20th century (and certainly moreso now), when it is now possible to have a more globally nomadic lifestyle, the idea of home is becoming more of a transient and portable thing rather than an actual physical place for most people. But it is that idea of travel acting like a mirror to wherever you are going back to, your current home, that really resonated with me and my situation now. While traveling over the past few weeks I constantly found myself comparing things to Albania and to other places I’ve been. Especially in Italy – Albanians love to think they are Italian, and I picked up on a lot of fashion and cultural tidbits that I see here as well.
I could share here all the things I did or saw in Italy or Budapest, but I don’t want to make this into a journal or itinerary. And plus, what really stood out for me from my travels wasn’t any one thing I experienced. It was the fact that the things I appreciated were different. I think Peace Corps has given me a new frame of reference for my travels – past and present and future. Instead of the sights or other attractions, I was happy to focus on the company I was with, the good food, the freedom to go out and be anonymous and the opportunity to experience local culture. I think those are things I have always valued about travel, but when on vacation from my two year “travel experience,” I noticed how much more important they became. I am happy to have spent some time with great friends, happy to have had the opportunity to hear the Palermo opera’s version of “White Christmas” (very weird sounding) and happy to have been able to ring in the new year in a Hungarian’s apartment while dancing to European remixes of American music. It’s seeing and living in the mix and the mingling of all these cultural differences and being able to let loose that acts like a reset button for me here in Albania – makes me appreciate what I am doing here and gives me a bit of an energy boost to get through the rest of the winter.